Newsletter of the District of Asia

 September-October 1999


A Letter of His Excellency
Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X



His Excellency Bishop Fellay compares Rome’s new notion of the Primacy of the Sovereign Pontiff  to the Church’s traditional view.


Dear Fathers,

   A symposium was held at Rome at the beginning of this month (December 1996), on the initiative of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to discuss the question of the “Primacy of the Sovereign Pontiff” in the spirit of the line indicated by John Paul II in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (no. 95).

   We do not yet know the results of this assembly’s work. It is said that Cardinal Ratzinger took charge of this initiative “to prevent the worst”. In effect, those who truly initiated the project were the professors of the Lateran university who deny the historicity of the institution of the Primacy  (Mt 16:18) (i.e. who deny that the words “Thou art Peter, etc.” have truly been said by Our Lord to St. Peter – Ed.) . 1

   The Pope wrote Cardinal Ratzinger a letter for the opening of this Symposium, which letter was published by the L’Osservatore Romano.2  This letter continues to bother us and it seems to us that the newspaper headlines which describe the event do not go much further than the text itself, e.g. “The Pope is ready to question his Primacy”, by seeking new ways to exercise his Primacy.

1. It must be remembered that this questioning of the Primacy, which appears today as a conclusion drawn by the Pope himself, already existed in germ in the texts of the Second Vatican Council.

   It is now apparent that the warning cries which surrounded the discussion on Lumen Gentium were very longsighted indeed, and what the liberals wanted at that time, as a rigorously logical conclusion, is now being accomplished.

Since the Church has been ridiculously attired with a double supreme power, that of the Pope on one hand, and that of the “episcopal college” on the other,3  the unfortunate bishop of Rome finds himself with the role of a head, indeed, but of a head bound by the body and dependent on it. Otherwise said, the sum of the particular powers of the bishops has come to constitute a supreme power, when the sum of particular powers has never been able to constitute more than ...the sum of particular powers. For there is a qualitative difference between the whole and its parts.

It is for this reason that the power attributed by Tradition and by the Faith to the Successor of Peter inexorably tends to become the authority of a president. Likewise this Primacy of jurisdiction, which was so jealously defended and defined by the First Vatican Council, tends to be diluted into a primacy of honor or at the most a primacy of direction (as that of a president over an assembly). The message of the Pope to “the Church which is in China in full communion with the episcopal college, presided by the successor of Peter”4  testifies to this.

Hence, it is not surprising to find, in the above mentioned letter, the affirmation that the Primacy is “a gift which is conferred within the College of Bishops, to the Apostle Peter”. It is difficult to understand how this statement can be reconciled with the following Canon of the First Vatican Council: “If anyone thus speaks, that the Roman Pontiff has only the office of inspection or direction… or that he possesses only the more important parts, but not the plenitude of this supreme power… let him be anathema (Pastor Aeternus, Cap. 3, Denz.S 3064).

2. A second point to be noted is that, in the mind of the Pope, the Primacy is an obstacle to Ecumenism.

He remarks first of all that the Church “is aware of having retained, with fidelity to apostolic Tradition and the Faith of the Fathers, the ministry of the successor of Peter” and that this ministry is “in the service of unity”, and is “an instrument for evangelization”. One would expect to find here the echo of the apologets and theologians, who do not hesitate to speak of the mark of being founded on Peter as one which enables us, just like the four others, to recognize the true Church.

But the Pope adds that this conviction of Catholics that they possess apostolic Tradition in the Primacy “constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians.”5

What conclusion will he draw from this? Simply that the Primacy is to give way! And that we must “find a form of exercising the Primacy, open to new situations.”6

But does not the scholastic saying affirm that “agere sequitur esse” (actions follow the being, the nature)? If the agere (actions) changes, doesn’t this signify that the esse (being, nature) itself will have changed? Will we not then be confronted with a substantial mutation of the Faith?

3. In order to reassure us, the text then exhorts the participants in the Symposium to recall that which, in the doctrine of pontifical Primacy, falls under the seal of infallibility, distinguishing it from that which is legitimately disputed or which is in some way not definitely binding.

It is certain that this discernment belongs to the Chair of Peter. However, the seeking of minimalist positions, as the modernists have done since Vatican II, inevitably leads to a tainting of the Faith itself. It is to be feared that we will see lost in the process, yet once more, venerable traditions and even common teachings, if not the Faith itself. This is all the more likely as this discernment is regarded as “a necessary condition for the ecumenical dialogue”. The conciliar attitude is always present: theology is henceforth centered not on the truth itself, but on the necessities of a dialogue that is more and more imaginary.

This is why we need to bear in mind the following traditional doctrine on the Primacy of the Pope:

1.  The Primacy is a prerogative of the Catholic Church, which leans on it as on a foundation and a principle. “That the episcopate might be one and undivided, and that the whole multitude of believers might be preserved in the unity of Faith and communion by means of a well-organized priesthood, He placed the Blessed Peter over the other apostles  and He established in him the perpetual principle and visible foundation of this twofold unity.” 7

2.This Primacy is the efficient cause of the unity of the Church. “When the Divine Founder decreed that the Church should be one in Faith, in government and in communion, He chose Peter and his successors as the principle and center, as it were, of this unity.” 8

3.This Primacy was established by Christ Himself in the person of Blessed Peter: “If anyone then says that the Blessed Apostle Peter was not established by the Lord Christ as the chief of all the apostles, and the visible head of the whole militant Church … let him be anathema.” 9

4.It consists of a primacy of true and proper jurisdiction. 10

5.The Roman Pontiff, or Bishop of Rome, is the successor of Peter in this Primacy: “If anyone then says that it is not from the institution of Christ the Lord Himself, or by divine right that the Blessed Peter has perpetual successors in the primacy over the universal Church, or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in the same primacy, let him be anathema.” 11

6.This Primacy, which belongs to the very constitution of the Church, is unchangeable in itself and all its properties, and it is not subject to evolution. The immediate consequence of this is that a new “form of exercising” this primacy seems to be a direct attack on this holy constitution (of the Church). We ought to make note here of the proposition condemned by St. Pius X:

“The organic constitution of the Church is not immutable. Like human society, Christian society is subject to a perpetual evolution.” 12

7.The Primacy consists in the plenitude of the supreme power. Consequently, it is not possible to envisage dividing or diminishing it. 13

8.It must finally be remembered that this power is ordinary, truly episcopal, universal and immediate. These are the properties carefully described by Vatican Council I. 14

This Papal millenarism, which seems to believe more in the influence of the year 2000 than in that of grace, leads us to witness a progressive abandonment of all which could embarrass “the majority of Christian Communities”. How far will this go? This remains the mystery of God. May this mystery of iniquity invite us to immerse ourselves in the mystery of the newborn Child and see in Him the God of God, Light born of Light, King of kings and Lord of lords and to render Him our poor adoration in the hope that it might be accepted in reparation for these scandals.

+ Bernard Fellay
On the eve of Christmas, 1996





1.  Roberto Penna et alii. Cf. Courrier de Rome, November 1993, pp. 4-6.

2.  L’Osservatore Romano, December 2 & 3, 1996, p.8.

3.  Cf. Lumen Gentium no. 22; 1983 Code, Canon 336.

4. L’Osservatore Romano en langue française. Message à l’Eglise qui est en Chine, p.

5.  Citation of words pronounced before the WCC in June 1984.

6.  Ut Unum Sint, no. 95.

7.  Vatican I; Pastor Aeternus, Prologue, Denz S 3051.

8. Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum in The Church (Papal Teachings) by the monks of Solesmes, no 603, p. 329.

9. Vatican I; Pastor Aeternus, Cap. 1, Denz S 3055.

10. Ibid.

11. Vatican I; Pastor Aeternus, Cap I, Denz S 3058.

12. Lamentabili Sane, Syllabus condemning the errors of the modernists, Propositions 53.

13. Cf. Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, Cap 3, Denz S 3064.

14.  Ibid. Cap.3, Denz S 3060.

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